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Audiobooks – decline or comeback?

21 May 2007

The audio market is at last becoming sexy as it moves towards the new world of downloadable sound.

Sales of traditional spoken word on CD still offer many opportunities. Lisa Milton, speaking on behalf of the Audio Publishers Association in the UK, said that the organisation thought sales of audiobooks could be doubled in three years. They are currently thought to be worth $70 million ($138.26m).

In the USA the market is very much larger and the Audio Publishers Association of America reckons that the US audiobook market is worth $832 million (£421.22m).

Traditionally the audiobook market has been very conservative in its tastes and closely linked to the book bestseller lists. Thus Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was for the third successive year the bestselling audiobook in the British market, with Kate Mosse's Labyrinth also up there. The success of the much less likely reissue of Francis Durbridge's Paul Temple mysteries is perhaps more surprising, until you remember that this is a small and conservative market.

And that really is the problem for audiobooks, which are selling to a limited if steady market and failing to break through to a mass audience. Partly this is because the range of audiobooks stocked in bookshops is on the thin side and the shops are not keen to extend their range. Many people don't find them good value, when the three hour abridgements common in the market-place can cost £16.99 ($33.56) and on the whole you only want to listen to most audiobooks once.

Lisa Milton was announcing an industry-wide campaign to back audio sales in the UK this autumn, with a special emphasis on the suitability of audiobooks as gifts. A recent Audio Publishers Association survey found that only 8% of UK consumers had listened to an audiobook at all in the last year, and that half of those had listened to less than five. Price was felt to be an issue, and Milton urged price reductions: 'We've got a £10 ($19.84) threshold to work within, so we've got to find ways of lowering the cost of the product.'

Traditionally audiobooks have appealed to bookish people with popular tastes, with an leaning towards older purchasers. It's not clear how many people sit down and listen to an audiobook as a way of spending their time, given the competing claims of television and the Internet. There's no doubt though that they are a wonderful accompaniment to many dreary tasks, such as doing the ironing. They are also perfect for listening to in the car, and one of the reasons for the much greater demand in the States is that average commutes are much longer than in other parts of the world.

So what is happening now, against this background of a pretty static market for audibooks, is that the whole notion of audiobook rental seems to be coming into its own. Jo Forshaw of audiobooksonline proclaims that: 'Suddenly spoken word is sexy, stylish and hell, it's almost cool.' Forshaw is talking up a huge increase in the currently undeveloped market through rental and easily available rental at that.

Her company Audiobooksonline works as a subscription service modelled on the successful DVD rental businesses, with the customer paying a monthly subscription and to rent what they want, which is then instantly despatched to them through the post. This approach, if it works on a commercial scale, will mean that authors will make royalties from the original sale but then also a small further payment every time the audiobook is rented.

So this is the present, and there are plenty of opportunities to build the audience for audiobooks. But what of the future, audio downloads and writers' own recordings? News Review will investigate next week.